"You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment."
— Francis Urquhart
House of Cards is a British TV show and book about Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart (played by Ian Richardson), who aims to become prime minister by any means necessary. Based in part on Macbeth and in part on Richard III, this BBC series became very popular when during the original run of the first series, which depicts Urquhart's conspiracy to become Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher resigns, she actually did a mere ten days after the first episode aired.In 2013, Netflix released an American-setoriginal series based on the novel. The UK series airs on some PBS stations in the United States.
House of Cards provides examples of the following tropes:
Alternate Universe: After Thatcher's resignation. Urquhart becomes prime minister for a slightly longer term than Thatcher, the Queen is implied to have died in The Nineties, Thatcher herself seems to die many years before her Real Life death. Both the TV and novel versions of The Final Cut have a Conservative installed by Urquhart's machine, meaning that Labour would never have won an election between Thatcher's tenure (1979-1990) and Urquhart's (approximately 2001.)
That's assuming Thatcher resigns in 1990 in the House of Cards universe. However, since a general election is held immediately after her resignation, that would imply she leaves office shortly before the 1992 election. This would make Urquhart prime minister until about 2003 and put the Conservatives in power for almost 25 consecutive years.
Ambiguously Gay: Tim Stamper. Though some background dialogue suggests he and his wife are looking for schools for at least one child, so his rather fey manner may not have anything to do with his sexuality.
On the other hand it's not unheard of in British politics for gay politicians of the time to put up a Family Man charade, so it's entirely possible that's what the wife and child were part of. Nowadays there are a number of openly-gay M Ps so younger viewers might not appreciate how damaging an accusation of homosexuality could be to an MP in the late 80s/early 90s.
Ambition Is Evil: Urquhart's villainy stems from his desire to become Prime Minister, after being passed over for a cabinet position in the first series. An while this clear-cut motivation or motif becomes far more nebulous in the sequels as he engages in other schemes for more petty reasons, the correlation between power and corruption is always there. It's rather telling that FU has a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte - who rivals Hitler as one of England's archnemesis - in his desk.
One contemptible MP being disciplined by Urquhart rejoices in the name of Stoat.
Urquhart's cabinet in the third series includes Ravenscourt, Sparrowhawk, and Crowe.
Aside Comment: Urquhart often talks to the audience, both as exposition and telling us his own thoughts. It actually works better than one would expect. As a long-term Shakespeare actor, Richardson was probably quite comfortable with this updated version of the soliloquy.
Continuity Snarl: The first novel, published before the television series, ends with Urquhart jumping to his death when Mattie confronts him at the end, as opposed to him throwing Mattie to her death. The second book (To Play The King) ignores the first book's ending to align itself with the TV continuity but ends with Urquhart again facing his comeuppance as the King abdicates in order to run against him for Prime Minister and that, with the help of several key defections from Urquhart's camp, stands a good chance to do so. But the TV series ends with Urquhart winning re-election easily and the King (who does not run against him) being forced to abdicate the throne in order to get Urquhart to stop his vendetta against the royal family. As such, the third volume drops all reference to the King and his ultimate fate, and continues with Urquhart in charge.
Catch Phrase: "You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment."
Could Say It But: His catchphrase, which means "No comment, but yes." (Naturally, he's often using it to imply blatant lies without actually lying.)
Darker and Edgier: "To Play the King" and "The Final Cut". The former has Urquhart picking a fight with and ultimately destroying the King of England for the crime of speaking out against the cruel social policies of Urquhart's government — although the principle of a constitutional monarch respecting the results of popular election is also involved (and is the weapon that Francis uses against the king). The latter shows Urquhart willing to sabotage a peace settlement in Cyprus (which he had previously spearheaded) and trigger a civil war there in order to beat Margaret Thatcher's record for days in office.
Tim Stamper has the occasional moment, especially in "To Play the King":
Sarah Harding: (having just arrived at a surprise event at Chequeurs) Quite a heavyweight gathering isn't it? Half the cabinet, and their wives. Tim Stamper: Hmm, some of them are enormous, yes...
Discontinuity Nod: Urquhart's opening narration at the start of "To Play the King" refers to his predecessor as a "frightfully nice man who talked a lot about the classless society." It's a clear reference to John Major, whose premiership doesn't exist in the "House of Cards" timeline.
Rayner is a deeply unpleasant and opportunistic bully, but even he is shocked by the schoolgirl massacre.
Evil Chancellor: As Chief Whip, Urquhart has spent enough time as The Man Behind the Man to have worked himself into a position of influence over new Prime Minister Collingridge and most of his colleagues.
Fat Bastard: Benjamin Landless, a corrupt, greedy and monopolistic owner of numerous newspapers.
Faux Affably Evil: Urquhart, in House of Cards. He wins people over by being calm, decisive, charming, and someone they know they can rely on in a pinch, all the while calculating how best to stab them in the back. As the series goes on, however, his cold, snake-like qualities become more apparent to those around him, and this trope becomes less applicable. A large part of To Play the King revolves around his cold, aloof image compared to the King's heart and humanity.
For the Evulz: Urquhart takes delight in making people very angry, and whilst considering his retirement, remarks that "there's time for plenty more fun yet!" Similarly, his reason for his vendetta to destroy the King of England. He could have ignored the criticism that the King was giving him, but the chance to utterly destroy a man's life (as suggested his wife, who noted how bored Urquhart was becoming having succeeded in becoming Prime Minister) was too tempting to pass up, simply because of the challenge and the joy of doing so.
Foreshadowing: In To Play the King, Urquhart mentions how a "small war" can be a politically exhilarating experience. In The Final Cut, he deliberately engineers a war in Cyprus in a last-ditch effort to stay in power.
From Nobody to Nightmare: Had the Prime Minister simply promoted Urquhart from Chief Whip to a position in the Cabinet, Urquhart would probably have remained content. Instead, it's being passed over that sets Urquhart on his scheming, destructive course.
Gender-Blender Name: Mattie, presumably it's short for Matilda but she's never referred to as such. Penny, with only the name to go on, assumed Mattie was a man.
Ghost Town: Most of the focus of the TV series is on Urquhart as a character, so we don't really see much of the impact his policies have on Britain. However, To Play The King suggests that this trope is a growing problem, while The Final Cut reveals that he has abolished the Arts Council. Tom Makepeace hints that Urquhart's policies have hurt Britain's reputation in the European Union.
Hope Spot: In the last episode of To Play The King, two characters are about to hand over vital evidence against Urquhart. They are prevented from doing so with extreme prejudice seconds before they reach their respective destinations.
Idiot Ball: Man or the people or not, it's most unwise for a King to tour the country without a real security detail. Not surprisingly, FU quickly sees an angle and exploits this temerity.
Informed Attribute: In The Final Cut, Urquhart and other characters often hint that John Rayner is an extremely hostile racist, with at least one comment referencing the Ku Klux Klan. However, while we see how far to the right Rayner is during a cabinet meeting, he never openly exhibits racism throughout the miniseries.
Ironic Echo Cut: Often in the television series, Urquhart will predict what someone will do or say... and since he's a magnificent bastard, he's usually right. Sometimes the ironic echo is accompanied by Urquhart raising a knowing eyebrow to the camera.
Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: For a while, Urquhart's chats to the camera display his excuses to himself for why the morally questionable thing he just did was justified. Then he throws Mattie off a roof and gives it up, coldly admitting to us that it was purely about saving his own skin.
Even though he is assassinated at the end of the series, Urquhart never really gets punished for the murders of Roger O'Neill and Mattie Storin — the tape recording that Tom Makepeace planned to use against him becomes useless with his death. Even moreso in the final book, in which Urquhart organises his own assassination so he can salvage his reputation by heroically saving his wife, and manages to set up the destruction of Tom Makepeace's political career in the process.
Kavorka Man: Here is a piece of dialogue from the first episode.
Mattie Storin: Urquhart’s leading the witch hunt. I do think he has a sort of — I don’t know — magnetism about him. Journalist colleague: Kissinger syndrome. The aphrodisiac effect of power. Mattie: I guess that must be it.
And then there is Sarah Harding in To Play the King, who feels suddenly compelled to tell Urquhart how much she doesn't want to end her marriage in the middle of their job interview.
While she does not get much screen time until the last series, one could very well argue that Elisabeth Urquhart is even nastier than her husband. She is the one who pushes him to topple the current prime Minister (from his own party) and in the third series, it is strongly implied that she had Urquhart assassinated in order to protect herself. (Although, she did seem motivated by her desire to salvage his reputation posthumously after Tom Makepeace threatened to publish the tape implicating Urquhart in the murder of Mattie Storin).
There seems to be quite a bit of this around. Patrick Woolton's wife also seems to be quite a bit tougher than expected.
May-December Romance: A distinctly creepy one between Urquhart (53 at the beginning of the series) and Mattie (23 or 24). She actually calls him "Daddy," and although he's clearly using her for his own ends, it seems both are into this whole father/daughter dynamic for their own, twisted reasons (although we never quite fully figure out what they are).
Meaningful Echo: Urquhart is galvanised to depose Collingridge when the PM passes him over for a higher post in the cabinet, explaining, "I need a good Chief Whip more than I need a new Home Secretary." In the second series, Urquhart's own chief whip and sidekick, Tim Stamper, decides to betray him: "But you promised me the Home Office!" Urquhart also acquires a new young, female protege with the same results.
My God, What Have I Done?: Possibly Urquhart's reaction to killing Mattie. He has a look of shock while it happens, and is afterward unusually reticent while speaking to the audience, not trying to come up with any reason why it was morally justified.
Next Sunday A.D.: The first story is set at an unspecified but close future date when Margaret Thatcher has resigned — even closer than the writer thought, as it turned out, as she resigned during the run of the first series. The second story is set in motion by the death of Queen Elizabeth.
Depending on the length of Collingridge's tenure in relation to the date of Thatcher's resignation, this would mean Urquhart's death takes place in 2001 or 2002. The Final Cut's 2001 Britain doesn't look at all different from 1995 Britain.
The King in the second serial is based on Prince Charles, with obvious stand-ins for Princess Diana and Prince William.
Benjamin Landless, the American proprietor of the corrupt right-leaning Chronicle tabloid, is based to an extent on Rupert Murdoch, the Australian proprietor of several corrupt right-leaning tabloids in Real Life.
No Party Given: Never officially mentioned in the books, though in the series Urquhart is stated to belong to the Conservative Party.
Geoffrey Booza-Pitt, who has a reputation as a harmless, somewhat buffoonish character, but is suggested to be much cleverer than he looks. In the TV series he is undone by Urquhart's manipulations, but in the books his reputation lets him hang on in the succeeding ministry.
Also Elizabeth Urquhart — when talking to the chairman of the Cyprus border arbitration panel she pretends to be dim so she can accidentally-on-purpose let slip some very sensitive information.
Official Secrets Act: Invoked by Urqhart in order to keep damaging information about his military service in Cyprus from coming to light.
Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Kenny Ireland as Benjamin Landless meanders between his native Scottish accent and various American accents.
Old Media Are Evil: The newspaper Mattie works for at the start of the first series is corrupt and firmly in bed with the Conservative Party, having tied their fate to that of the Prime Minister when they helped him get elected at the start of the series. Mattie finds out the hard way, when a story she writes (thanks to leaked material provided to her by Urquhart) is spiked because it would harm the Prime Minister. And when she finds proof that the Prime Minister and his brother were framed by someone within their party, the paper (now backing Urquhart in the upcoming special election to replace the Prime Minister) not only spikes the story, but permanently reassigns Mattie to the humiliating task of writing the "cooking" section of the newspaper and tell her, point-blank, that if she quits, they will exercise her "no-compete" clause to keep her from finding work for a reporter for three months.
Psycho for Hire: Commander Corder, Urquhart's intensely loyal bodyguard, does not think of his victims as human beings, and is willing to kill anyone who threatens the PM and his reputation, including Urquhart himself.
Royals Who Actually Do Something: The King in To Play The King clearly wants to be this. Unfortunately, it quickly puts him at odds with Urquhart. Although Urquhart is, of course, opposing the King for his own venal interests, the story does point out that there's a very good reason why, in the British constitutional monarchy system, Royals Who Actually Do Something In Terms Of Taking Political Sides is not a good thing. In the novel, the King abdicates on his own discretion and announces that he will stand for parliament and oppose Urquhart as a democratically elected MP. However, thanks to retcons between books, this isn't mentioned in the final part of the trilogy.
The B-plot in The Final Cut involves an aging Cypriot named Evangelos Passolides trying to get into a position to assassinate Urquhart and avenge his brothers, who were executed illegally by Urquhart during his time as an army officer stationed in Cyprus. In the final scene of the series, he steps out of a crowd to take his shot at the PM just as Urquhart is assassinated by a completely unrelated gunman. Also counts as Shoot the Shaggy Dog.
Mattie's story. Not just the story she's compiling, but her story as in her role on the series.
Starscream- Tim Stamper. Possibly also a dragon to Urquhart.
Strawman Political: Mostly averted in the TV series. Every character who expresses strong views is always allowed to justify them, and any such character portrayed negatively (such as Patrick Woolton) is simply shown as a generally unpleasant individual in spite of their beliefs. Michael Dobbs was a Conservative, though, which might cancel out any motivation to show the Conservatives in an unfavourable light, as they have often been portrayed by other writers.
In the novel, Urquhart arranges his own death so he can appear to die heroically shielding his wife from an assassin's bullet while organising events to strike at Makepeace from beyond the grave and destroy his political career, ensuring his legacy in the process.
In the series, Elizabeth Urquhart organises Urquhart's death with Corder's help in order to save his reputation, which had been torn to shreds by a botched military operation in Cyprus resulting in the deaths of several children, along with several impending scandals.
Upper-Class Twit: Geoffrey Booza-Pitt, a minor cabinet minister and staunch Urquhart loyalist who is promoted to Foreign Secretary to humiliate the outgoing office-holder (Urquhart's rival) Tom Makepeace.
Victory Is Boring: Urquhart spends the second and third seasons constantly feeling the need to stir up trouble just so he can have something to do.
Urquhart: You want a strong leader who is not afraid to act. You chose me. Whatever I do, whatever is done in my name, you partake of it.
You Monster!: The King calls FU a monster in the Series 2 finale.
Your Cheating Heart: Subverted. Elizabeth Urquhart encourages her husband to enter affairs with other women if it is politically advantageous to do so. The three series state that Mrs Urquhart is quite fond of Corder and finds his services "useful", implying that they have an affair with FU's knowledge, which is further confirmed inThe Final Cut.
Also subverted with a political rival whom Urquhart blackmails with an audio tape of his affair. The man's wife is furious not so much of the affair (because she implies that she met and married him under similar circumstances) but because he was stupid enough to get caught.